Antiquities roadshow

15th September, 2007

I am writing this column in one of my favourite London haunts – the Great Court at the British Museum. I’ve just been to see one of the museum’s most famous and controversial exhibits, the Parthenon Sculptures – also known as the Elgin Marbles. These carvings were taken from the Acropolis in Athens more than 200 years ago by the Earl of Elgin. But while there’s a predictably long-running argument over whether the carvings should ever have been removed, the trade in antiquities remains very much alive today.

This trade is almost inevitable. In a poor country, such as Mali or Cambodia, foreigners are likely to be willing to pay more for artefacts than the locals would.

The logic of the market would pull the choicest objects into foreign collections and foreign museums. Many see this as undesirable, and so most countries maintain some form of ban on trading antiquities.

But such bans have some unpleasant side-effects. They replace the logic of the market with the logic of the black market, which means that smugglers would try to conceal the locations of new archaeological sites, to erase or forge the historical records surrounding objects, and to excavate and ship objects without the care that could be lavished on an operation that was legal. Beyond these purely archaeological considerations, illegal objects are less likely to end up in the top museums and may be relegated to private collections, which is in itself a shame. It’s enough to make an archaeologist weep – and an economist too.

Michael Kremer, a Harvard economics professor with a track record of inventive ideas, and Tom Wilkening, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a possible solution earlier this year. Instead of flatly banning the export of antiquities, why not ban their sale but allow them to be rented?

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